This review was based on a review code provided by BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment America. I’d like to extend my thanks for providing a review code for the Library of Ohara. However, the thoughts expressed in this review are mine and mine alone.
The review code was for the Nintendo Switch edition of the game, which runs very differently from the other versions as I’ll go into detail later. I had the chance to play the PS4 version as well, which appears to be quite identical to the Xbox One and PC versions, so I’ll be providing different review scores for the Switch version and the PS4 version, as the difference is notable enough to create a considerable difference in quality. All the pictures and footage included in this review (barring a couple credited exceptions) were captured directly with the Switch’s built-in capture function and were not altered, modified, or edited in any way or form. These are exactly how the game looked playing on the console.
Pirate Warriors 4 is the newest adaptation of our beloved pirate manga, being the fourth entry in the already long running Pirate Warriors series, a spin off of the famous Warriors genre, or “musou” as it is often called by its original name. For the uninitiated, musou games first started as war simulators set in feudal Japan, offering large-scale battles that pit you as famous commanders attempting to conquer several sections of a large map while fighting a large number of enemy soldiers all at once. The formula has extended to many spin offs, including crossovers with series such as The Legend of Zelda, Fire Emblem, and of course, even One Piece. In the case of the latter however, the gameplay is centered less around control of territory and war tactics and is more mission-oriented, having to fulfill certain tasks around each map rather than trying to fight for military dominance, simply using the musou formula as a template for its level design.
As such, the only real form of gameplay is progressing through these large maps while plowing through enemy hoards as you fulfill certain objectives, such as defeating specific enemy commander or moving to certain locations while escorting other allies across the battlefield. That, in a nutshell, is the gameplay of a Pirate Warriors game, done across retellings of a few select arcs from across the series, with each mission objective meant to faithfully replicate iconic scenes from the manga’s history. To put an example, at Enies Lobby you are tasked with defeating Kaku, Jabra and Lucci, then making your way out of the besieged island, while at Whole Cake Island you are trying to escape from a wedding cake-craving Big Mom by escorting the Straw Hats out.
STORY AND STRUCTURE
The game’s main campaign is divided into six main chapters, which include Alabasta, the Water 7/Enies Lobby Saga, the Summit War (which includes only Sabaody and Marineford), Dressrosa (with a brief Return to Sabaody), Whole Cake Island and Wano. Each of these sagas cover most of the important beats of said storylines, though these are heavily streamlined and abridged retellings of the arcs. I felt it was perfectly reasonable when the story was altered for the sake of making gameplay more natural, as compromises must be made for gameplay to flow better, but when said compromises were caused by evident lack of development time, such as several characters missing all together because the developers simply didn’t have the time to design their models in-game, is when these retellings really felt vastly inferior. Among some examples, the likes of Karoo, Pedro, all Nine Scabbards aside from Kine’mon, Cracker, Smoothie, most CP9 members, etc. are outright written out of the story, not for the sake of making the story more simplistic, but simply for the sake of saving on model count. To put an example, characters like Zambai and Paulie are replaced with generic cloned NPC models.
This issue extends to the playable characters, who are very rarely wearing their appropriate outfits for their arcs outside of special exceptions. Seeing Nami with her Fishman Island bikini at Whole Cake, or seeing Usopp with the same outfits for the whole game is so jarring that it often took me out of the experience, completely killing the immersion that is meant to be this game’s selling point. This is an infamous issue that has plagued previous Pirate Warriors titles, but just because this issue has precedent it does not excuse how utterly lazy it is. This even extends to some characters having post-timeskip apperances used within pre-timeskip arcs as well as characters who simply have the wrong proportions or the wrong color schemes, showing a great lack of care in consistency and accuracy for the sake of cutting on development costs.
In terms of its actual storytelling and main campaign however, Pirate Warriors 4 simply attempts to cover far too much yet far too little at the same time. It attempts to cover the nearly 1000 chapters of the current One Piece storyline in just 6 in-game chapters, which is too much to fit in one game. By attempting to cover the whole story, Pirate Warriors 4 simply doesn’t cover enough arcs to properly convey the grand epic that is One Piece, with the likes of East Blue, Skypiea, Thriller Bark, Fishman Island among many other arcs not being present, yet at the same time, I feel as if it really never needed to do that to begin with. The previous Pirate Warriors games already do a great job at covering those older arcs, so this entry should’ve instead been centered on the newer ones that hadn’t been covered by previous games, mainly being Dressrosa, Zou, Whole Cake Island, Reverie and Wano.
These five arcs would’ve been more than enough to deliver a complete and fulfilling experience and yet the game’s desperate attempt to cover the whole story causes not only the older arcs to feel redundant and unnecessary to replay through what is already rehashed ground, but every single arc, including the newer ones, feel much less polished than they should be. Not only are the newer arcs shorter and with less scenarios than they would’ve had if this game focused on them alone, but some of the new arcs are cut entirely, with no Zou or Reverie to be seen, instead being sacrificed for the same old retellings of certain arcs we’ve already seen hundreds of times in older One Piece games. Even more frustrating is that arcs must be played in order, so you must make your way through several hours of old rehashed arcs before you can enjoy the new and far superior arcs, making the large majority of the game a tiresome retread of already far too familiar ground. This is only made worse by the fact that the campaign in general is quite short, barely a dozen hours long, with the best arcs only lasting a few hours, meaning that not only is this game lacking in content, but it somehow manages to feel tedious to even beat said content given how poorly it is distributed.
I get the feeling that attempting to cover the entire franchise might’ve been to make the game more accessible to players who are not familiar with One Piece, yet that intent is lost on the fact that it simply doesn’t do a good enough job at covering the events of the story in the first place. So much of it is so poorly explained that anyone who hasn’t read or watched the series would struggle to even understand what is going on, as story events are just dumped one after another in long boring cutscenes without any proper explanation as to what any of its elements even mean, often skimming over entire arcs and important plot lines all-together. If the game had focused on the newer arcs alone it wouldn’t have been any different for newer fans, making it such an unnecessary design choice to awkwardly spread the already short campaign over so many arcs, resulting in a poor man’s version of these famous and iconic stories from the manga.
On a small sidenote, the large part of the Wano arc is an original story, similarly to how Pirate Warriors 3 had an original story for Dressrosa, given how the arc isn’t over yet in the manga. While Act 1 plays the same as it did there, everything after is a completely different take from what we currently have, even going as far as including certain characters that have nothing to do with Wano, like Cavendish, Katakuri, or Smoker. The writing isn’t particularly good or… well… logical to begin with, yet I was so incredibly entertained by the story on the simple fact that it wasn’t yet another retelling, allowing me to actually be surprised with the cool setpieces it presented with unexpected characters, team ups, and scenarios. Don’t get me wrong, it’s silly enough to give power level fans a stroke, but it’s so unashamedly over the top and unique that I found myself so much more engaged than at any other point in the game. It almost felt like playing through a One Piece filler movie, with the fun setpieces and over the top story making for some of the game’s best moments. If the rest of the game was more like Whole Cake and especially Wano, then I feel we’d be looking at a very different product.
But back on topic, this unfortunately brings us to the core issue that Pirate Warriors 4 has and that is simply that it lacks polish. It quickly becomes evident that there was a clear lack of either development budget or development time, with several corners being borderline sawed away for the sake of meeting a release deadline. And none of this could be more apparent than with the Switch version, which is simply inferior than all other versions, taking already cut corners and cutting them a second time over.
Don’t get me wrong, on all other versions the game is still quite rough around the edges: it is visually bland and the animation work is simply terrible. But it compensates with a crisp art style that looks generally nice when playing the game on said consoles. In fact, the pre-rendered cutscenes on either console actually look pretty fantastic (even if many of them are borderline recycled from older titles, as are several assets in the game), carrying a lot of the energy from the original scenes to the point that it even made me a little emotional at some points, especially with the great performances from the original voice actors.
But on the other hand, when it comes to the cutscenes played out in-engine, at least on the Switch version… well, let’s just say they are simply comical in how awful they are.
Above, running on Switch. Below, running on PS4 (courtesy of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROV9JYGbmuI). As you can see on PS4 it looks considerably better, but it still suffers from the same stilted animations.
I feel that these days we see the term “this looks like an early PS2 game” being thrown around a lot undeservedly for many games, yet Pirate Warriors 4 on Switch couldn’t have a more appropriate description. Low quality textures, stilted and robotic animations, disjointed movements and awkward camera shots plague both in-engine cutscenes and gameplay, to the point that it’s hard to believe these passed approval for release. The graphics are already quite unpolished on other systems, but on Switch it is such an unbelievable downgrade that is simply inexcusable considering the stunning titles the Switch is clearly capable of running and is a clear sign of a poor port caused by inexperience at dealing with new hardware.
What’s even more baffling is that the game has abnormally long loading screens, some of them lasting for over a minute just to load a cutscene, sometimes with even two in a row. And unfortunately this issue persists through both Switch and PS4. When a game looks unpolished and yet still takes an enormous amount of time to load, it’s a dangerous sign of bad programming and lack of talent in being able to properly load assets.
Awful animation work aside, on PS4 and other consoles the graphics thankfully look quite decent all around, even during gameplay, but unfortunately it’s once again on Switch where they are much rougher even outside of cutscenes. On both consoles character models actually look really solid, as do their battle animations, but more than anything it’s the environments that truly suffer, especially on Switch, where the maps are plagued by low quality textures, barebones geometry and awful lighting that don’t feel at home even for a PSP game.
Shadows and lighting vanish in and out constantly with a mind of their own, while pop in happens for a large part of the game’s models, not being visible unless you are standing mere meters close to it.
A particularly egregious example was in Dressrosa where the entire city vanished before my eyes after trying to simply walk a little bit away from it, while suddenly materializing as I got closer. This became quite disorienting during battle in quite a few occasions and more than anything it added to breaking my immersion.
The environments already often don’t look as they should, but the constant unloading of entire portions of the map and constant visual issues made it incredibly hard to feel as if I were playing a One Piece arc and more like I was playing some low quality fanmade mod. I tend to not hold anime games on the same standards as AAA games from a visual perspective, as I do understand they are being developed with a lower budget (these are licensed games after all), so I feel I’m usually quite tolerant when it comes to graphics, often favoring a nice art style over sheer graphical power… but there’s still a bare minimum standard that any game should pass and the Switch version simply fails to meet said standard. These technical issues simply shouldn’t be acceptable for a title in 2020. Even taking aside the many technical issues from the botched Switch port, the other versions still suffer from very poor animations and some other problems, so while I’d definitely recommend playing on any console but Switch, every version still suffers from a lack of visual polish caused by an evident absence of development time or funds. One Piece has proven that it can put out incredibly stunning and mechanically solid games, such as last year’s phenomenally looking World Seeker, which boasted fantastic presentation, so there really is no excuse with how much money One Piece draws in to cut so much on development resources.
There’s just so many elements in Pirate Warriors 4 that feel rushed. From the basic and lazy animations, to the limited number of models for the sake of saving up on character or outfit count, the many typos I found in the English translation, the short campaign and the enormous amount of recycled assets from previous games to name a few. I was hoping that coming from Pirate Warriors 3, this game would take the opportunity to improve on the series’s graphical department and yet it somehow manages to look even worse than the previous entry in many cases, even when played on PS4 or a high-end PC.
The only saving grace of the presentation aside from the great-looking pre-rendered cutscenes is the soundtrack, which while sometimes a bit generic, it features a few memorable tracks. A large part of the songs are a bit too similar-sounding, with an overabundance of loud trumpets, but some select tracks are very solid and wouldn’t feel too out of place in the anime. Some stand outs include Whole Cake’s French-inspired battle theme, as well as Wano’s upbeat themes that mix traditional Japanese instruments with energetic rock. A particular highlight is Kaido’s theme, a beautiful mix of epic chorus and Japanese instruments, that feels incredibly befitting of someone like him, as well as the fantastic final boss theme.
Thankfully from a mechanical perspective the game is a little more robust and despite all the visual issues, glitches aren’t too abundant (even if I did run into a few of them, even getting softlocked once). However, even then it still feels mechanically unpolished in certain aspects and the rushed feeling extends beyond the game’s visuals to the way it flows when playing. The camera is unfortunately a bit poor, becoming a little awkward to move in some scenarios, where characters would leap all over the place (although nothing that made the game unplayable), but at least the characters weren’t that hard to control. Framerate in general was pretty solid as well, with the dips not being that noticeable or disrupting the flow of gameplay at all.
The real problems came more with the game’s AI: one one hand, enemies and bosses would often sit around doing nothing or do a poor job at targeting me. But even worse was with ally AI, particularly aggravating during escort missions where you are required to stop them from taking too much damage and guide them to one location, despite the fact that every time my allies would constantly stop to fight even the smallest of enemies or keep running against a wall or in the opposite direction from where they are meant to go, making for some of the game’s most frustrating and immersion-ruining moments.
At the very least, one of the game’s redeeming elements is its sheer fun factor. Defeating large hoards of enemies as iconic One Piece characters provides such satisfaction that you can’t quite put a price on. The game’s biggest strength is by far its large roster of characters, over 40 in fact, which make it one of the largest rosters of playable characters in a One Piece game to date! And what’s great is that every single one of these characters feels very distinctly unique in playstyle: the likes of Bege are more centered around commanding troops and using firearms, while the likes of Bartolomeo offer wacky and over-the top moves, like surfing on a barrier. Each character feels very distinct from each other, with a great representation of moves from the series (as well as some brand new moves that feel perfectly consistent with how their powers work) that offer plenty of different ways to pummel your enemies.
Such a roster capitalizes on the game’s fanservice, which is one of the key reasons why one would even wish to play it in the first place. While the story retellings are rather lackluster in several aspects, the character movesets are what really make you feel like you are playing through those One Piece arcs as these characters, making each of them fun to try out and play. This is helped a lot by many of the main campaign’s chapters offering great variety of playable characters; while the early levels mostly rely on Straw Hats, latter ones feature such variety that you’ll be playing as someone different every single stage, keeping the game very engaging to play through. And the cherry on top of the wedding cake is the fantastic new additions to the roster, including playable fan-favorites like Kid, Bege or Katakuri. But as I said before, while it’s hard to complain about such a roster, I wish they cut down on older characters and arcs and focused exclusively on the newer ones, as I would’ve much rather had the chance to play as the likes of Jack, Kin’emon or Perospero, rather than Ace, Smoker or Tashigi for the billionth time.
The biggest highlight of it all is of course the fact that all four of the Yonko are playable for the first time, allowing us to finally wreck havoc with the likes of Kaido and Big Mom and I am happy to report that they are just as ridiculously over the top and utterly broken as we had hoped they’d be. Being able to play as them is so incredibly fun that it makes having to sit through the whole story campaign to unlock them worth it. This type of fanservice, coupled with little details like Pandaman hiding in loading screens or the use of kabuki curtains to open Wano levels are some of the game’s most charming qualities.
Unfortunately however, while the game offers a great deal of depth when it comes to the movesets and options of each and every character, even offering a unique skill tree for each of them that unlocks new moves, combos, and stat boosters, most of this falls flat given the game’s strong lack of challenge. There are definitely a large number of options and moves at your disposal, yet none of them are really needed to succeed. Given the ease it takes to stun enemy troops and bosses, there were times where I could literally spam the Y button in place and it would be enough to defeat everything while barely losing any health.
Obviously you shouldn’t just spam as that takes away the fun, but the fact that it’s a viable strategy rather than punishing you for doing so is something that detracts from the challenge, one that is already heavily lacking given how much the skill tree buffs your stats, to the point I was able to beat Big Mom at the end in under a minute. Rarely did I find myself taking serious damage and never did I see a game over screen, even while playing on harder difficulties (which were more challenging, but only mildly), easily getting S ranks across the board with minimal effort, with the only real sense of difficulty only coming in towards the game’s latter hours. So while there is plenty of depth being offered here, none of it feels necessary or serving any purpose besides avoiding visual repetition, which adds to the already present tedium that naturally comes with musou games. While this game does add a little bit more mission variety than previous games, as well as new mechanics such as air combos, it still isn’t enough to make that much of a noticeable difference, causing the game to fall into that classic gameplay formula that will be either quite addicting to some players or downright tiresome for others.
And in the end I feel that’s one of the key things you really need to ask yourself if you are interested in buying this game. It’s a package of traditional generic musou gameplay through and through and you have to consider if it’s worth putting up with its repetitious nature, as well as its many technical issues, unpolished presentation, and lackluster storytelling for the sake of having fun playing as this large cast of One Piece characters. For those craving for more there’s definitely some decent amount of extra content to delve into that reuses the game’s assets for some new gameplay scenarios, but that is just more musou gameplay for those that are fine with the repetition and won’t do much to hold those that already felt quite burned from the main campaign.
Ultimately, Pirate Warriors 4 is a game that will appeal to those willing to enjoy another musou experience, but for anyone else the game’s issues might or might not be enough to detract from said enjoyment. Even for dedicated One Piece fans, if the prospect of this style of gameplay doesn’t strongly appeal to you, then even the fantastic fanservice might not be enough to make the whole journey worth it, especially at full asking price. As someone who enjoys the Warriors genre and some of its titles (Hyrule Warriors is still one of my favorite Wii U games), I still had quite a lot of fun and I certainly enjoyed myself. But despite its highlights, such as the final stage of the campaign or the fun I had playing as characters like Kaido, my experience was heavily marred by all the technical and mechanical issues and the game’s poor structure. It definitely offers a lot of fun gameplay and fanservice, with a dreamlike cast that will swoon any One Piece fan, but unless you are a musou veteran who can easily tolerate the repetition of these types of games, then Pirate Warriors 4 might not be able to hold your attention for long, something only made worse by the myriad of technical issues, aggravated by the terrible Switch port, which make an already tedious experience into a much rougher one that is hard to immerse yourself into.
If only the story was better focused around the latter arcs and more evenly laid out, and if there only had been a more extensive development period and added polish, this could’ve ended up being something truly special, but as it stands, it’s an enjoyable albeit underwhelming experience both as a Warriors game and as a One Piece game, of which there are better options for fans of either of the two.
PlayStaton 4 edition score:
Nintendo Switch edition score:
If you want to hear more about One Piece games, check out last year’s review for One Piece: World Seeker, a game I’d still recommend to this day! https://thelibraryofohara.com/2019/03/20/one-piece-world-seeker-in-depth-review/